The Heartache of the Impossible Child

9.22.14 Screaming Child iStock_000008551025SmallThe reality and heartache of the impossible child.

Most of my kids were really great. They just needed the right opportunity to get their acts together. We adults provided those opportunities and we all got along. But, let’s face reality, I have to admit that I did encounter some kids who seemed impossible to reach. At least, that’s how it seemed.

One day early in the semester in which I began my sojourn at our CDS school a student walked into class and said, “Oh man! I should have stayed in.” So I asked him, “In where?” He replied, “In jail!”

I run a tight, goal oriented class but it’s not that hard, yet he preferred jail to school. Obviously there are some serious issues here that go way beyond the scope of this essay. I include it only to show how stubborn a child can be.

I must issue a mea culpa. The following story is about a child so difficult her classmates wanted her suspended from school. It has a sort of positive resolution but I feel I just got lucky in coming up with it. Thank God for Two Choices Technique.

The Student Progress Meeting

In an effort to improve instruction and our relationships with the kids, after each grading period all of us teachers would meet during and after lunch as a group (we were a small school). Then we would call in each student one at a time and review their progress. Some students were given high praise and told to keep up the good work. Most received a mixed bag of praise and questions about the subjects they were having trouble with. “You’re doing fine in Mr. D’s math class. Why do you think you’re failing Language Arts? How can we help you?” That sort of thing.

And then there were the hard cases, those students who could not or would not get with the program. They were unable or unwilling to help us fit the program to their needs. Each was their own version of the impossible child. No offer of compromise, no promise of reward or threat of punishment would get them to cooperate in their own success. Nadine was the most impossible of the bunch.

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Punked Out to an Authority Figure

The Lesson

8.7.16 Thirty FiveI wanted to help my kids avoid unnecessary problems with authority figures. Of course, I wasn’t so naive as to believe I could advise them so they would have no problems with authority figures. I just wanted them to learn that it is occasionally possible to de-escalate a situation. I wanted them to understand that what I was saying might keep them from turning an unfortunate situation into something much worse or deadly.

Too many of my kids had trouble with law enforcement or school officials. I have written before about the variety of kids we got at a CDS school. Some were there because they were criminals. Others were there for silly mistakes. And a few were there simply because they were teenaged idiots. They all needed advice for how to deal with the cops.

I told my kids the following true story about how I handled an encounter with law enforcement. To be truthful, I wasn’t ready for my students’ shocking response.

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Educational Expert? Who Me?

CSUN DiplomaEducational Expert?

Yes I am an educational expert. How about you? If you’re like me (or Rodney Dangerfield) you put in the time and still get no respect. I put in the time going to University classes. I earned a Masters degree in Education. I became National Board Certified in Algebra. I attended colloquia and seminars and extra classes. I put in the years in the trenches of the classroom. There are legions of former students who attest that I was a positive influence in their lives. So why don’t parents and the school district listen to me?

It’s simple. Parents want an easy fix and the school district wants support for their way of thinking. Part of the reason the powers that be don’t listen to me is that I don’t always spout the party line. For other reasons we may look to the Bible and Matthew 13:57

And they were offended in him. But he said unto them, “A prophet is not without honor, save in his own country, and in his own house.”

So why does this matter? I’m tired of people saying, “You’re the educational expert. You should have known what to do.” I know what to do, but too many times those involved don’t want to go along. What they really mean is, “You should have known to do something different which didn’t upset anyone or involve the parents.” Here’s an example:

The dreaded “N” word and the call home

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Middle School Terror

6th Grade PicThe First Day of Middle School

It was the first day of school. I was working as a substitute PE teacher at one of the largest middle schools here in Los Angeles. This middle school had several multi-story buildings and was spread out over several acres and was a logistical nightmare for new students (and unfamiliar substitute teachers).

On this first day, in PE, we were enrolling and checking attendance of the 40 or more students enrolled in each period and we were giving locker assignments. The 6th graders were living portraits of terror and frustration.

Many of these young boys had gotten lost and showed up late and scared. Some missed the orientation and some missed the instructions for how to use a combination lock. Just finding their way around this massive campus reduced many a young boy to tears.

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What Whoopi Goldberg Can Teach Us About the Oscars and Diversity

Whoopi's OscarDiversity in Black History Month

Every February at my school we would celebrate Black History Month with assemblies and presentations about Black History. At first, the presentations consisted mostly of documentaries featuring news footage of the struggle for civil rights. Every year we’d see white police beating black people in Selma or Montgomery or elsewhere. And every year our black students would come out of the assemblies visibly and understandably angered by the injustices they had seen.

I went to our principal and asked for some diversity in the presentations. I pointed out that just showing beatings and police dogs and firehoses used on demonstrators didn’t tell the whole picture. It gave the impression that all white people hated all black people which just wasn’t and isn’t true. If it were, we’d still be legally segregated or worse.

My students didn’t need to be convinced that racial prejudice is real – they’d seen it first hand all around them. What they needed was inspiration not more hatred. What they needed was a glimpse of those heroes, white and black, who worked to break down racial barriers. That included Lyndon Johnson as well as Thurgood Marshall, Branch Rickey as well as Jackie Robinson, and Eleanor Roosevelt as well as the Tuskegee Airmen. This was not to imply that the struggle for equal treatment had or has been won. It was intended to show what worked. It was intended to show that the struggle goes on and that only through cooperation of all parties could the forces of prejudice be overcome. And a diverse program was also intended to teach rational judgement because sometimes it isn’t only about race.

Don’t Boycott the Oscars

As of this writing (January/February 2016) there has been a lot of discussion of the lack of diversity in the Academy Awards and what to do about it. There has even been a strident call to boycott the Oscars. I think a boycott is not the answer. Those who would boycott seem to be trying to make this a racial or moral issue when it is more of a business issue and popularity contest.

It’s not about morality.

Why aren’t those concerned with diversity complaining about the lack of diversity in the NBA? Why are there no Cubans on the Miami Heat? Why are there no Irish on the Boston Celtics? Boston Celtics – there’s a misnomer if ever there was one. Fielding a predominately black team in ‘Bean Town’ and calling it the Boston Celtics makes as much sense as fielding a predominately white team in ‘The Big Apple’ and calling it the New York Negros!

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Where the Apple Falls: Parents #2

Fallen apples on the ground under a treeIt’s not about good or bad.

You’ve heard that old saying that ‘the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree’. You can be sure that there are teachers the world over who have rolled their eyes and echoed that apple/tree sentiment after meeting some kid’s crazy parents. We’ll talk about those crazy parents next time.

Right now I want you to think about the the kid who is an apple that not only fell far from the tree – it rolled downhill and across the street! What about the teacher or parent who seems to do everything right and the outcome is still sad, bad or worse (see also Parents #1)? This is a critical distinction for two very important reasons. It goes to the heart of what it means to be a good parent or teacher and it goes to the heart of teacher evaluations. That is to say, how do we teach about parenting and how do we evaluate teachers if it is possible to do everything right and still have it come out wrong? What standards do we use?

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When Good New Is Sad: Parents #1

A mother crying over her son the way many parents do.This is about the emotional toll of ‘Back to School Night’, and the fine parents I met there.  Fine parents?  Say what?  You thought I was going to go on about the crazy parents I’d met.  Let’s save that one (well – there’s a lot more than one).

So, what was the good news that was sad?  I’d be talking with friends and saying that last night was ‘Back To School Night’ and they’d ask, “How did it go?”  It was a good night when I could say, “It went pretty well.  I didn’t make anybody cry!”

I wasn’t trying to make anybody cry.  It’s just that sometimes an honest answer is… bad news – and too many times I’d see good, caring people (parents and kids) weep in pain and frustration.  For example:

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Every Child Can Learn?

7.28.14 Sax iStock_000028194066_SmallBlues singer Otis Spann once sang,

I tried to tell the city boy what to do,
But it looked like to me he just couldn’t learn.

‘…he just couldn’t learn.’  You might get away with saying that when singing the blues, but for teachers, we can never say a child can’t learn.  It’s considered giving up or politically incorrect (i.e. career suicide).  Just listen to politicians and highly paid administrators (most of whom have not spent much time in the classroom).  They’ll say with great confidence, “Every child can learn.”  What they don’t say (or won’t admit) is that although every child can learn, they might not learn what you want them to learn or they might not learn it as quickly as you want them to learn it (see what I wrote about Common Core).  To give you a taste of what I’m talking about, let me introduce you to Bennie.

Bennie was one of my darlings from the Special Ed. class I taught.

You may remember from an earlier post that I had taken a job as a long term substitute teacher for a Special Ed. class which was labeled ‘severely disabled’ (severe autism, Tourette’s syndrome, heart disease, multiple sclerosis and more).  These kids faced intense learning challenges.  I was teaching these adolescents things like: how to use a stove without burning themselves, how to use a public restroom safely, or how to count – very basic life skills.

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Busted for Shouting!

8.6.15 Shout.jpegI got busted by the police for excessive force!

Yes, a cop… busted me!!! for excessive force.  And when law enforcement complains of a teacher using excessive force, you’d think, ‘Wow that teacher must be out of control.’  Or would you?

Officer Bradshaw was talking with the Principal out on the P.E. field when they heard shouting coming from outside a classroom.  They turned to see a white male teacher shouting at a black female student.  (Start the body camera now) Bradshaw turned on his ‘body cam’, he couldn’t make out what was being said but it was obvious that the teacher and the girl were yelling at each other.  Then they stopped yelling and stomped back into the classroom (stop the camera).

Outraged (and probably feeling like he had the moral high ground), Bradshaw turned to the Principal and demanded, “Is THAT how your teachers talk to your students?”  The Principal said, “I don’t know what that was about, but I will find out.”

So, of course, I heard about it that afternoon.  Before I could say a word in my defense, I was hearing phrases like, “I expect better things from you… Have you any idea how embarrassing that was… What were you thinking?” and more.  To which I protested, “You guys weren’t there.  I had to shout at that girl just to get a word in edgewise.  I was only following school policy but she refused listen.”  “So you had to shout?”  “Yes!”  And before the week was out, I was vindicated by the Principal’s own actions.

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Don’t Shout! Oh Yeah?


“Hey Man.  You don’t have to shout!

“Oh Yeah?”

What do you think?  The vast majority of books and teacher trainings tell us don’t shout.  Shouting teaches shouting, not quiet compliance.  That’s fine philosophy but there are times when it seems counterintuitive.

Back when I first started teaching, I was given a most excellent book called Teaching Children Self-Discipline At Home And At School by Thomas Gordon, Ph. D. (author of the best-selling Parent Effectiveness Training and Teacher Effectiveness Training).  In it, Gordon ‘shows why traditional disciplining doesn’t work at home or in the classroom, and how to change children’s behavior effectively using skills of cooperation instead.’  I agreed with everything he said until I got in front of a classroom and I crash landed on Planet Reality.  I still believe he is right.  I just believe there is more to it that is missing from his books – that’s one reason why I write.

Here’s what happened:

At home I’d read, ‘…children will use self-control to follow rules when they have been given the chance to join with adults in deciding what those rules should be.’  Then the next morning I’d get a call to substitute teach at some troubled school and wham!  Reality set in.

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